In the mood for a funny sci-fi with a lot of heart! Make WASTE OF SPACE your next read. Here’s what it’s about:
Cram ten hormonal teens into a spaceship and blast off: that’s the premise for the ill-conceived reality show Waste of Space. The kids who are cast know everything about drama—and nothing about the fact that the production is fake. Hidden in a desert warehouse, their spaceship replica is equipped with state-of-the-art special effects dreamed up by the scientists partnering with the shady cable network airing the show.
And it’s a hit! Millions of viewers are transfixed. But then, suddenly, all communication is severed. Trapped and paranoid, the kids must figure out what to do when this reality show loses its grip on reality.
This season we’re
thankful for these five moments that are sweet as cider and will warm your
heart like grandma’s apple pie.
Grim Lovelies by
Beau and Anouk dancing in the kitchen
He held up their hands as though ready to dance. Soapy water
ran down his arm, soaking his shirt cuff, but he didn’t seem to mind. The tempo of the violin music picked up;
Viggo must have been in a good mood. Laughter came from the ballroom.
Anouk rested one hand on his should and sighed. “Go on,
then. Show me how.”
He grinned. “Step back. Like this. There. Now forward.”
She tried to follow his movements, leaving damp footprints
on the kitchen tiles. He led her in a clumsy circle around the big oak table,
one-two-three-four.” The floor was slick from the water dripping form her dish
gloves. Soap bubbles popped in the sink.
The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Sal and Mima making cornbread
We were making pies. Well, I wasn’t doing any making. It was
really just my dad. And Uncle Julian. They’re, like, this team. They look
alike. I sat next to Mima as Dad rolled out the dough.
Mima nodded. “I showed him, she said.
She was calm.
Then Mima said to me, “We should make the corn bread.” Yeah,
the corn bread. Mima’s stuffing was to die for. So I got the ingredients and
made room for myself on the kitchen table. I took out a big mixing bowl. We
always tripled the recipe. Making the corn bread with Mima was my thing. Our
I watched her hands as they worked the batter over with a
wooden spoon. I wanted to kiss them.
Green by Meredith Russo in Meet Cute
Nia and Lexie at a party
Her throat tightened and her eyes felt suddenly hot and wet
and her face twisted up and this was worse than throwing up, definitely worse,
but then she felt arms around her neck and she opened her eyes to find her cheek
pressed into Nia’s neck, her nose filled with lavender and bergamot hiding just
under a blanket of woodsmoke, and the tears faded.
I twist back to Charlotte. And freeze. There’s a welt on her
cheek and her coat’s hanging open and askew on her shoulders. She’s still
wearing the brown dress I last saw her in. There’s blood on it.
I jumped from the bed, and my hands push the coat down her
arms till it catches at the crook of her elbows. Then I’m inspecting her – brushing her hair back to see her neck, the
side of her head – searching for whatever injuries left the dress collar
“It’s yours,” she says. “Reece, it’s your blood.”
From when she helped me into the house. I realize my hands
are cupping her face, and I step away quickly.
Each generation, a competition is held to find the next empress of Honoku. The rules are simple. Survive the palace’s enchanted seasonal rooms. Conquer Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Marry the prince. All are eligible to compete—all except yōkai, supernatural monsters and spirits whom the human emperor is determined to enslave and destroy.
Mari has spent a lifetime training to become empress. Winning should be easy. And it would be, if she weren’t hiding a dangerous secret. Mari is a yōkai with the ability to transform into a terrifying monster. If discovered, her life will be forfeit. As she struggles to keep her true identity hidden, Mari’s fate collides with that of Taro, the prince who has no desire to inherit the imperial throne, and Akira, a half-human, half-yōkai outcast.
Torn between duty and love, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness, the choices of Mari, Taro, and Akira will decide the fate of Honoku.
I did not like the book, unlike the majority of book bloggers on Goodreads who rated the Empress of All Seasons a five out of five. I would give it a one. Right at the start, my first impression was that I’ve read this same unoriginal YA fantasy too many times. The same blan characters who win the games and fall in love and all that halabaloo. It’s exhausting. It did have an interesting premise as it is the woman who enters the competition to win the prince’s hand in marriage but it completely fell through. Both the writing and world building were undeveloped, and it made reading this book a chore rather than a enjoy.
As *surprise* romance plays a mammoth part within the plot, I found myself skimming the bucket loads of cringey duologue.
“”We complement each other.”
A corner of Taro’s lips twitched. He took her hand, pressing a kiss to her palm. “You best me in combat and in rhetoric.”
Mari smiled, a flush spreading from her neck to her toes. Sh nodded at the Fall Room door. “I hold no favorable memories of that room.”
Taro’s eyes flickered to Mari’s. “Someday, you will have to tell me how you survived it.”
Mari kept silent, remembering the smell of the oni’s breath, the feel of its flesh as her claws raked its face. “I must have some secrets,” she teased.
“Not from your husband,” Taro corrected dark gaze raking her up and down.”
The holidays are right around the corner, and do we have a gift for you: an excerpt of ONCE A KING, the new standalone fantasy from Erin Summerill publishing 12.4! While fans of EVER THE HUNTED will find some nice easter eggs in this book, it’s a total standalone about the noble journey a young king takes to ensure lasting peace in his kingdom. (It’s also about falling in love with someone you really, really shouldn’t.)
Scroll down to read the first two chapters!
CHAPTER ONE- Lirra
I lean against the dusty elementiary shelf crammed with books and jars of animal bits, and stare at my father’s letter. His nearly
swift disappointment. Gods, the All Kingdoms’
Summit happens only every five years. It’s not as if Da hasn’t had time enough to arrange his
schedule. The remainder of
is blocked by another letter. It’s sealed in my father’s
heartbeat slogs through my ears, muting the chatter of mismatched accents and clatter of carriage wheels outside the Elementiary. What a fool I am for thinking this time Da’s priori-
ties would include something other than busi-
ness. Having worked for my father for five years,
I know better than to be hurt by this news. Just as I know, without reading further, Da needs me to deliver the
I suppose it also shouldn’t be surprising that there’s no
note here for the littleuns or Eugenia, my stepmother and worrier extraordinaire. Overwhelmed by black-market trade and valuable secrets, Da
“Lirra, you done?” Orli’s clipped tone echoes from the
of the shelf.
I fold Da’s letter, intending to finish it later, and squeeze
fingers along the parchment seam. One, two, three sharp
“Almost,” I call out, and shove the now-empty box back into concealment behind a jar of rat tails. To maintain our family’s anonymity and safety, Da sends correspondences here for me to retrieve in secret. He trusts few people more than Astoria,
Elementiary owner and my
former magic teacher.
“What’d he write?” Orli asks
when I come into
My best friend is standing by the door, trapped in a stream of dusty light, right hand strangling the doorknob, the usual
tawny tone leached from her knuckles. Despite her unease with Channeler magic, she’s accompanied me here every week since
“He won’t be returning for a while.” I pick at the broken
“You mean he’ll miss the start of the tournament, right? He’ll
jubilee and the other summit
I shake my
Raven brows shoot up. “He’s going to miss your jubilee
My nail wedges under the last bit of red wax and frees it
from the parchment.
Astoria has one hand on her cane and the other clutch- ing a pile of books, going about business as she usually does whenever I slip inside the Elementiary to pick up Da’s mail.
ambles out of the backroom to her desk, where she deposits the stack. I’m not entirely sure she’s noticed me until she lifts an age-spotted finger to shove her spectacles higher
and then points to the letter in my hand. “Not what you were hoping?”
I slip it into my satchel and force a smile. “That’s the way it
“Oh, dear girl.” She frowns. “And it’s your first year enter- ing the jubilee.”
The sadness magnified in her watery blue eyes sours my mood.
My gaze drops to the ring of dirt darkening the hem of my
There’s a shuffle thump of steps on the wood floors, and then Astoria’s arms come around me, squeezing me to her
“Your da knows it’s important to you.” The love she radi-
ates makes me feel like a cat basking in the sun. “He’d be there if
Astoria has been Da’s friend and closest confidant since before my birth. She offered us a safe place to hide at her home
in Shaerdan after we escaped Malam’s Purge — the Channeler eradication that would have seen me killed for my magic ability. We have lived near her ever since. She understands Da
better than anyone, but I don’t want to hear her talk him up right now.
“She knows,” Orli says. “All set to go, Lirra?” Her despera- tion to leave the Channeler school is as potent as the scent of
“You don’t have to leave so soon.” Astoria returns to her desk.
from that door and sit down.”
“We need to run by the docks. Getting through all the visi- tors’ carriages will take time.” Orli points to the blown-glass
windows. Outside, a rainbow of fabric has assaulted Shaer-
dan’s capital city of Celize. Passersby wear their kingdoms’
colors like a shield. Usually, the northern edge of town, where
the cliffs climb up from the docks, sees little traffic. Travelers have invaded all of my hometown, even the quiet roads stretching east into farmlands and forests. Scores of people
from the four neighboring kingdoms
days in anticipation of the All Kingdoms’ Summit and festivities — the Channeler Jubilee, the Tournament of Cham- pions,
“Orli is right,” I say. “We need extra time to look at the crowds.” I have things to pick up for my jubilee exhibit that
Astoria fiddles with the wrist button of her dress sleeve.
you next week?”
I nod, even though it’s uncertain if she’s referring to the jubilee showcase or my next mail visit. My head is stuck on
a memory from five years ago. At the last jubilee, Da and I watched from the sidelines. Channelers from across the king-
doms showed displays of magic. Breathless and awed, I confessed my
at the next
Next week’s jubilee.
Silence is the sweetest sound in the Barrett home, and such a
rare thing to be had. It’s alarming how loud the boards creak
as Orli and I sneak inside
carrying packages from the dock market. Packages that could
be easily snapped in half by my younger brothers’ grubby fin-
“Where is everyone?” Orli mouths.
I shake my head. The kitchen is filled with the usual mess,
minus my family. Dirty dishrags lie heaped in a pile on Grandmother’s table beside a discarded, half-finished drawing of a
pig — or an owl. I cannot tell. A stale odor lingers in the air like
a haunt of last night’s leek-and-carrot soup. And then there’s the crock of Eugenia’s morning pottage, still sitting on the sooty hearth.
Monday service, my stepmother drags the littleuns to the cathedral on the cliff each week as
I abandon my protective crouch around the wrapped
wooden dowels. “The carriages on the road must’ve slowed her
“Do you think it’s odd that Eugenia will make peace over Millner’s
earnings the next
asks as we head down the hall toward the attic ladder that hangs in
“When you talk about my da’s business like that, it sounds
“It’s not exactly saintly. Your father sells secrets to the high- est bidder.
“He’s an information trader.” I shrug off her comment, not
Orli’s head falls back, and she explodes with laughter. “That’s a new one. Though a bit much for Millner Barrett. Maybe something like high ruler of the black market would
be more accurate.”
I laugh. At least she didn’t call him Archtraitor, the infamous title he earned for defying the Malamian regent, evad-
ing capture, and building a secretive life in Shaerdan. It gets under
“My point is, she repents one day and spends his money the next.” Orli follows me up to the attic room. She flops on my bed while I sit on the floor and arrange the dowels from
to smallest. “It
a note of irritation? I leave
packages lined up
Gone is the easy smile she wore after leaving the Elementiary. Was today too much for her? Were the crowds over- whelming?
“I know what you’re thinking, and that’s not it.” Orli slides her dark braids out of her face. “It’s nothing. Forget I said anything.”
“Nothing is nothing.”
“That makes no
I pinch her toe. “It means if something’s important to you, it’s
She points to the packages. “Don’t you want to finish un- wrapping those before
brothers get home?”
I don’t even glance down. “Subject change? Beginner’s move.
know I have more self-control than
She guffaws. “A fox in a henhouse has more self-control than
“Is it?” A little light brightens her stormy eyes. “I’m sore over Eugenia’s soil order, is all. Satisfied?”
“The one for cabbage?”
Wasn’t that weeks
“You know how the growing season is. Mum hasn’t been
means increased hours on Orli’s family farm. Especially for her mum, who earns extra money
by selling magic-infused soil for growing vibrant, pest-resistant plants. Altering the soil drains her
energy, a cost all Channelers pay,
“Has Eugenia been pestering her?” Even though Eugenia isn’t a Channeler, she knows Channelers need time to restore
I tear the packaging off the dowels to feel their notched
ends, all sanded to a silken texture. The largest dowel, bal-
anced on my open palm, is impossibly light. Almost weightless. The wood’s scent is balsa and musk. A humid summer
“It’s my mum.” Orli’s tiptoe-quiet response brings me back
the room. “She wants me to fill Eugenia’s order. She thinks
“What do you think?”
She doesn’t answer. A year ago, Orli was kidnapped as part
an attempted coup in Malam. The former regent was intent
siphoning magic from Channelers and combining the sto-
energy into the ultimate weapon to use against the young king. I was part of the effort to rescue her, and ever since, Orli has been plagued with nightmarish memories and constant fears. It took months before she was able to leave her farm and venture into public. But she has yet to use her Channeler magic.
“I would help, but all I’m good for is blowing dirt around your farm.” I nudge her knee.
Channelers have influence over one energy — land, air, fire,
water, or spirit. Orli and her mother have the ability to manipulate the land, while I can harness the wind.
for?” Orli rolls her eyes.
“It’d have to
be a small pile.
“You’re full of
hot air, you
laugh, never too
Channeler puns. “Truthfully,” Orli says, more serious. “All you’ve done this year is impressive.”
Does she realize she’s come far this year too? I open my mouth to tell her as much, but she cuts me off. “Don’t be modest. I wasn’t even referring to what you did for me.” Her voice
“I’d do it again,” I whisper, knowing exactly how hard it was to find her. To free her.
Orli rubs her eyes, and then shoves me in the leg and adds
annoyed look. “Don’t make me teary. I’d do the same for you, fool.”
I know she
She scoots off the bed and sits cross-legged on the floor.
“What I’m trying to say is what you’ve done with your gliders is a big deal. You use your magic in a different way than we grew up learning. Everything we created was from our energy. Like my mum and the soil. She has to sacrifice herself for every batch of
But your gliders
“I use my magic to
I say, confused. “No, you use magic to test them. To see if they’ll fly.”
This much is true. I wanted to build a contraption that would allow my brothers to glide in the sky without me having to
“Anyone, Channeler or giftless, can follow your pattern
and make their own glider. You’re going to show people a new
way of looking at Channelers. Maybe they’ll even see that we shouldn’t
“Maybe, hopefully, it’ll inspire a few people,” I say, though the possibility makes me feel like I’ve ingested a swarm of
A door slams in the house, and a herd of elk rumbles through
I hear my
brothers say before
stampede alters course.
I rush to rewrap the dowels and hide them under my bed. “Do you want me to talk to her about the soil? Or are you ready?” I hate pressuring Orli, but she has to use her magic
day. May as
“I’ll figure something out. I’ll be fine.” Her expression shutters closed.
She thinks my winged inventions will change how people
Channelers. Maybe she’s right. But what will it take to inspire
prove that her magic isn’t to
I go downstairs to greet Eugenia in the kitchen and find her plucking dirty rags
“Any word from
da?” she asks.
“No.” It’s better not to mention he wrote me about busi-
ness. When Da is working, Eugenia likes to pretend he’s just
taking a trip to visit friends. She won’t acknowledge his meth-
of collecting and profiting
off secrets if she can help
“Do you think
he’s all right?”
“He’s been gone for longer stretches, and he always returns safely.” I’ve
Her hands knot in a dishrag. “Right. Of course. I’m sure
for the festiv —”
The rear door smacks against the wall, startling us both.
twins race inside,
their mother’s feet.
Eugenia drops the rag,
Despite her runny emotions, she lunges for them as they
to scramble away. Loren
into the table
upends a chair. Kiefer
beside the hutch.
“What has gotten
“We don’t run in the home. Look at this dirt. I just swept the floor, and now I’ll have to do it again.”
Loren rubs his hip.
Mum. Just some quick moving.”
“Save your quick movement for
me?” I ask.
Loren’s smile switches into something sly, like a youthful
image of Da, all dimpled tanned cheeks, stocky frame, and
windblown curls the color of wet driftwood. I’ve always longed to look more like them instead of a reminder of my mum, with
hair so thick it
be roof thatching.
“Lirra does whatever she pleases.” Loren turns pathetic cow eyes on
only that were
seen her run
in the house.”
“You have not.”
I turn to Eugenia for support. Working for Da requires liv-
ing by another set of rules, something Eugenia knows even if she doesn’t
“You don’t go to church.” Loren points at me. “You sneak
out at night. And sometimes you go around with mud on your
face. Mum always makes us wash our faces. Doesn’t she, Kief?”
Kiefer, the more silent twin, peeks around the hutch. “I seen mud
“Get back in your hiding spot,” I growl at him before spin- ning to face Loren. “Don’t pull me into this. You were foolish enough to
He starts to complain, and Eugenia silences him with a look. The boys rush toward freedom in the shape of the back
door. That’s when
I notice the
coating their trousers.
Specks that look an awful lot like wood shavings?
you two been?”
“Which. Shed.” My nostrils flare. Kiefer
My glider wings are in that shed. If the boys touched them … “Tell me. Or this week at the summit festivities, I’ll
find the she-pirate, Song the Red, and pay her to sail you to Kolontia. The north is terribly cold. So cold that men and boys lose toes and feet and even legs. How fast will you run without
hmm, Loren? Tell me
now — woodshed or
“Yours,” Kiefer blurts. His cherry cheeks turn pale pear
only wanted a peek.”
“We didn’t touch nothing, promise.” Loren
I hold in a smile. “Keep your stubby limbs for now, Loren. But
if you —”
them out the door.
“They need to
“What do you expect, Lirra? They look up to you, and you
“No responsibilities?” Anger twists through me faster than the twin tornados could destroy my stuff. “My responsibilities force me to break rules. My job for Da requires it.”
She yanks a pin out of her bun, and her hair topples like a bird’s nest breaking apart. “Don’t pretend to be dedicated to your da’s
work when you spend
by the insinuation. My
ters most. If Da asked me to pay more attention to his business, I’d do it. But he doesn’t ask. He doesn’t include me in every deal. He doesn’t share all his secrets, as much as I’d like
“What of your dedication?” I stomp to the window and point at the carriage parked inside the barrier of trees conceal- ing our home. “Every week you visit the cathedral and make penance. Maybe instead of praying so much, you should no-
for you. For the family.”
Eyes widen over a stone expression. “Nonsense. You’re angry because the boys were curious. I understand that, but you
cannot blame them. Your contraptions look like children’s toys.”
Children’s toys? Will the jubilee organizers think my glider
My fingernails dig crescents into my palms. “Was it curiosity when they broke your Plovian vase? The vase you insisted
buy with his black-market money? Don’t be a hypocrite.” It
Last year the twins knocked over the vase. Eugenia was shattered. That same colorless devastation overtakes her expression now.
I bite my
“I — I shouldn’t
“Julisa’s awake.” Eugenia gives me a look of defeat and leaves.
I return to where Orli is waiting for me in the attic, my chest
stuffy and hot
with frustration. And shame.
It’s not her fault that Da is gone. Or that he takes on too
much work and doesn’t allow me to help manage the load.
has me deliver messages to informants, listen to private
conversations, and track people’s habits, but he never asks for more. He
of the work
Loren and Kiefer are too young to help, and I doubt Eugenia would let them get involved in Da’s business even if they were older. I’m the only one he can lean on. It’s up to me to
help him. Eugenia is right. I should be focusing on Da’s letter,
not my gliders.
“Whoa, what happened?” Orli watches me climb the lad-
der. “You look ready to practice dagger throwing on a live tar- get.”
I dig through my satchel for the letter. I peel it open and
I’ll not be returning in time for the summit.
The rest of
“This cannot be all there is.” I flip it over. Da would never use this much parchment for so short a note, or ask me to deliver a letter with no instructions. His message must be here, hidden.
I trace the blank page. “I
wonder if he used a blood charm. Da’s never used one before. Blood charms are illegal, and even if they weren’t, they’re hard to come by,” I say, remembering what Astoria taught us. “But it would explain why there are no
She releases a shuddery breath and taps the letter. “Right.
we are talking
“I guess there’s only one way to find out.” I pull a dagger
Orli sits on the bed, trembling fingers sliding under her
thighs. “Go on.”
I hate that magic makes her uncomfortable. But I have to
know what Da wrote. I sink the blade’s tip into the fleshy pad
my finger. A crimson drop bubbles from my skin and drips onto the ivory parchment, fanning out as it seeps into the surface.
I’ll not be returning in time for the summit.
If you’re reading this, you figured out the blood charm. The following job must be completed immediately and privately.As you can tell, secrecy is of greatest importance.
To fulfill an agreement I’ve made with the king of Malam,you must
deliver the enclosed letter
curse.I know this assignment will displease you, but it must bedone.
The king’s letter has also been sealed with a blood charm.You’ll find nothing there if you attempt to peek. Please explainto King Aodren how these types of charms are activated. Theman’s Channeler knowledge is in the budding stage.
Deliver the letter before the summit is underway. It cannot be late. Tell no one and go unseen.
Give my love to Eugenia, the boys, and Julisa.Love, Da
I’m not displeased.
What deal has my father made? King Aodren cares noth-
ing for Channelers. Hell, his kingdom has encouraged the hunting of Channelers for the last twenty years. This is why
father and I were forced to flee Malam and live in Shaer- dan. King Aodren may have ended the Purge Proclamation, the horrific law that was responsible for the deaths of countless Channelers in Malam for the last twenty years, but he
did so out of desperation. Last year, King
the Channelers Guild, the governing women who oversee all Channelers in the five kingdoms, to save his life and help stop a plot to
My efforts to save Orli caused my path to cross Aodren’s. I was the one who introduced him to the Guild, and I even
saved his life in battle. But has he ever expressed his gratitude for
No. Not at
a king. King
Aodren cares only
Da has all sorts of unsavory business associates, and
though I dislike it, it’s not so shocking to discover King Aodren is a new one. Royal coin is as good as commoner coin.
What I don’t understand, however, is why the king of Malam needs
from Da, ruler
of the underground.
I press my fist to the sudden bloom of ache in my belly. I
want to forget this request and finish my glider. But Eugenia’s
comment earlier nags me. Da needs me. And maybe this is the way to finally prove he can rely on me.
CHAPTER TWO- Aodren
My attention catches on a flash of colors as gold and blue Shaerdanian tunics enter the far end
of the mud-streaked training yard. Not count-
ing the half dozen guards standing at attention nearby, until now Leif and I have had the field
alone to spar. The two newcomers must be the
who have been chosen to represent Shaerdan’s ruler, Chief Judge Auberdeen, in the upcoming Tournament of Champions at the All
When the tournament first began, each king- dom’s ruler and their second fought a mock bat- tle to prove their strength and leadership mettle.
Decades ago, after the Plovian king lost his life,
the rulers decided participation was too dangerous, and tradition changed. Now the most skilled warriors in
the land vie to fight in place of their leader.
Leif, the first of my chosen competitors, swings his prac- tice sword through the air. I thrust upward to block. It’s too late. His waster slams my left arm. Bone-rattling pain lances from
elbow to shoulder, and my
hits the ground.
Godstars! “Solid strike.” I suck a breath between my teeth
to temper the pain.
“Are you whistling,
Glaring, I straighten my posture, regain some of the dig-
nity he knocked away, and switch to breathing through my nose, despite the moisture that clings to my nostrils. Shaer-
“I shouldn’t have landed that,” Leif says in a low voice. In
periphery, I notice one of the ever-present guards avert his
I wonder if he heard Leif’s comment. It’s
too sympa- thetic for the captain of the royal guard — the elite force of the most skilled combatants in Malam. He needs to control that
emotion if he and Baltroit, the other Malamian competitor,
are to prove they’re the best fighters in the five kingdoms. Grit wins tournaments, not
The last All Kingdoms’ Summit was five years ago, and
I didn’t attend. It’s more important than ever that we have a good showing during the tournament. We must prove to the other leaders, my late father’s peers, and to Malamians that Malam is worthy of being here. That I am worthy of being here.
I roll out my bruised shoulder. “I shouldn’t have let you. On the battlefield, distraction means death.”
Leif watches the Shaerdanians through the slits in his helmet. “Lucky there’s no risk here.” He reaches for the fallen practice waster and swings it in an arc. “Not with this blunted sword.”
I move into position. “Enough talk.”
“Oh, you’re recovered? Ready to get beat?” Exhaustion
helps Leif forget himself, a benefit of our sparring sessions. Too often, he lapses into the formality he feels the captain of the royal guard should maintain around the king. He forgets I am
just a man and he
Chuckling, I switch grips to take the sword in my domi-
nant right hand. “Captain and court jester, let’s see how you fare
He snorts and swings his waster. I’ve spent the last six months training with Leif. I’ve studied his movement. He is
quick, but I’m faster. I block his blade and push my weight
into his. He stumbles. A vulnerable space opens between his
elbow and ribs, and I strike.
grunts against the pain.
The rhythm of our clanks and curses echoes across the
yard. This rigorous sparring session keeps Leif competition- ready for the Tournament of Champions. And it
the uneasiness that came on earlier today when my traveling retinue exited the forest and first beheld Shaerdan’s sum- mer castle. The stone fortress is designated for all leaders and dignitaries during the summit and sits north of Celize like a
My absence from the last summit sparked rumors that spread like a scourge. King Aodren’s too young. Soon he’ll be just like his hateful father and the
blood-spilling regent. Malam’s people are divided, and the kingdom is weak. Under King Aodren, only time remains until the kingdom falls.
Malam’s history has more shameful spots than the sky has stars.
My father was a prejudiced man, whose fear of Channel- ers spread to his advisers and led to the Purge — a kingdom-
wide Channeler eradication spanning nearly two decades. The
feverish hunt for magic users turned neighbor on neighbor. After my father died when I was a child, a regent ruled until I
Malamian borders so no
leave or enter Malam. Trade halted and our economy suffered. This dark time was further blackened when, a year ago, the regent didn’t want to relinquish power. He led a coup, killing hundreds
of citizens and half
of Malam’s nobility.
The rumors hold some truth — I am the youngest ruler at
the summit, my people are divided between support and opposition
I won’t be my father.
I won’t allow Malam to
When Leif and I are both aching and bruised, we stop
fighting. I lean on my sword, breath sawing through my lungs.
Leif tugs off his helmet. He swipes sweat from his beard and shakes out his hair. The usual amber color is now a slick mud- brown. “I could sleep till the first night of the tournament.”
My thoughts as well. However, “It wouldn’t do well to miss
Once our gear is stored in the yard house, two guards follow me and Leif off the field.
“See how in sync they are?” Leif glances at the Shaerdani- ans before they’re out of sight. “If Baltroit would practice here,
we’d have a better
I scratch the day’s stubble on my jaw. The summit, the tournament, and the jubilee are key factors in turning
Malam’s tide. We must do well in all three. When Lord Segrande insisted his son be chosen as the second competitor, I complied. Segrande was integral in the negotiations to re-open trade with Shaerdan, and going forward, his support is necessary to boost Malam’s economy. While Segrande and I
form alliances and trade agreements during summit meetings, Baltroit and Leif will be fighting in the Tournament of
Thousands of Malamians have traveled to Shaerdan to at- tend the events. A tournament win will inspire pride. It’ll give Malamians a reason to rally together. A reason to set aside their differences. And hopefully, later, a reason to spread unity
Baltroit is a fierce fighter, but he’s arrogant and refuses to train with Leif. While I could order Baltroit to the practice yard, it may offend Segrande, who has spent as much time training
son as I have with
I say, determined.
“The two of
you will do
Leif shoots me
The castle’s grand hall is a clamor of voices, thuds, and
scrapes, all under the aroma of rosemary and bread. As we pass through, conversation dims and everyone in sight bows.
Our boots clack loudly against the stone stairs leading to the
third floor, where Malam’s private rooms are assigned. The
two guards who followed us from the practice field take up posts at
closed corridor, while Leif enters
He points to the stack of letters on the desk. “The courier delivered these to the castle. Also, the welcome meal will begin
in two hours.”
Half of Malam’s fiefs have new leadership, and the repeal
the Purge Proclamation has made it possible for Channelers to return to Malam. A difficult transition, to say the least.
stay abreast of brewing tension, each lord reports on his
fiefdom. Even during the summit.
tell him to come
at a quarter
I start toward
Leif lingers. “Your Highness,
one more thing.”
Your Highness. Few dare meet my eye, let alone speak to
directly. Some decorum is expected, but Leif’s slip back into formality is aggravating. And isolating. “I’m scarcely six months older than you, and not a quarter-hour ago, you were trying to hit me with a practice sword. Call me by my given
“Aye.” His gaze shifts to the door. “At tonight’s dinner,
“I — I’m not sure I can.” A maroon tint stains his neck. He yanks his beard. It’s
reconcile the man before
the bear from the practice field. “Thing is, talking is not my
Leif has notable battle experience, good rapport with the
royal guard, and is unfailingly loyal, but he is also new to nobility. Too busy trying to bring Malam out of the darkness, I’ve
overlooked his greenness.
“Talk about the tournament,” I suggest. “King Gorenza will no doubt have much to say, since his youngest son is com-
“Could work.” He focuses on the floor stones for a long minute. “I won’t be skilled like Captain Omar was with con- versation.
But I’ll try.”
I laugh, loud and irreverent. The long day is bringing out Leif’s wit and humor.
But he doesn’t join in, his mouth is pressed into a grim line.
Oh gods. Is he serious? My previous captain spoke in mono- syllabic
“Leif.” I restrain my laughter. Composure has been drilled
into me since birth. “Omar used to say it’s the message that matters. Remember that. Treat this dinner like those at Castle
“I mostly talk
comment comes unexpectedly.
The words settle over me like a scratchy wool throw. Britta and her husband are on their wedding trip instead of attending the summit. It’s odd to consider her married, since I once
hoped she would share my life. But .
. . Britta is on my council.
She will still
be a friend.
“You’ll do fine,” I say, tone clipped.
Silence, and then, “Certainly, sir.” Leif bows and leaves my
So much for convincing him to use my name. I walk to the
desk and study the letters, though it’s a fight to focus on any one of them. Perhaps Leif is right to remind me that friend- ships should be the furthest
mind right now.
To the King our Most Sovereign Lord,
By dictate of your wise council, I begin my monthly report of the affairs concerning my humble fiefdom. The abolishment of the
has been posted in
the markets andcommon areas, and all countrymen have received notice of thenew law sealed by your great hand. May the news be receivedwell. Or perhaps I should write, may the news be received better than it has been thus far. I’m certain those displeased withthe return of Channelers will soon welcome the newcomers.
Last, Sir Chilton,
who inherited the bordering fiefdom afterLord Chamberlain was killed in the tragic attack on the castle,has struggled to manage his lands. The poor lad. If he needs tobe relieved of his land, I offer my guardianship.
Lord Wynne of Jonespur
To the King, Lord of Malam,
This past month, four Channeler families returned fromShaerdan to reclaim lost lands. Unfortunately, their returnwas met with opposition — one barn fire, three travel cartsdestroyed, and numerous fights in the market square. I wish I could report these numbers amounted to less than last month.
In addition, the
ore mine can no longer keep men employeduntil trade demand increases. The line of needy outside thechurch has
traders continue to come fromShaerdan. Considering Malamians have no coin to buy Shaerdanian goods, the traders must be foolishly optimistic.
Regardless, I hope the bordering kingdoms will welcome ourtrade soon. They cannot turn us away forever.
Your loyal man,Lord Xavier Variant
To King Aodren Lothar Cross of Malam,
Difficulties have arisen as returning Channelers havedeclared ownership and sought possession of land that hasbeen in another’s hand for nearly two decades. Last week, a disagreement led to the destruction of two alfalfa fields, aChanneler booth in the marketplace, and a clergyman’s entirecart of bread for the needy. It’s impossible to say if these actionswere meant to harm. I believe they were intended to scare.
Scribe for the Lord of Tahr,Sir Ian Casper
To the King our Most Sovereign Lord,
your wise changes in the law dictated that themarket be open to all, the appearance of Channelers hascaused disturbances. Truly, I do all I can to keep peace.Channelers have been so bold as to ask friends and family toboycott the merchants that have refused business to personsof magic.
However, not all merchants have
excluded Channelers.A new trader in the market square has been sellingChanneler-made healing balms. A portion of townspeoplehave shown interest in his goods. One remedy gaining popularity is called Sanguine. It is a healing oil, and quite effective from what I’ve heard. Perhaps it could be a boon to oureconomy.
As always, I am humbly dedicated to overseeing my fief’sneeds, just as I could be with any additional land you might wish to grant upon me.
Lord Wynne of Jonespur
To King Aodren,
Calvin Bariston of Fennit passed on from injuries sustainedin a tavern fight. It’s uncertain who stabbed him, since he first stabbed two other men and one woman. Calvin was acting erratic, and was, we believe, possessed by a devil.
Rumors started that the cause was the Channelers. Thoserumors were quickly proved unfounded.
Scribe for the Lord of Tahr,Sir Ian Casper
To the King of Malam,
Rumors about the Channeler oil have spread after an occur-rence last week. Onlookers reported that Mr. Erik Bayles met a passing trader in the market square to purchase Sanguine. For unknown reasons, Mr. Bayles became angry and struck
the trader, who then hit back, punching Mr. Bayles once and killing him. The trader left town before he was questioned. I’ve sent men after him.
Without answers, many blame Channeler magic. EitherSanguine gave the trader unnatural strength, or it caused Mr.Bayles’s death. Those who knew Mr. Bayles best have insistedhe was a hard man to kill. I did not inquire how many timesthey tried.
The dispute has divided the town. Some businesses haverefused service to anyone associated with Channelers. While I could force businesses to open their doors to all, I fear it will not end the division.
I must know, is Sanguine truly harmful? Please advise onhow to restore order to my fief.
Your loyal man,Lord Xavier Variant
After I dress for dinner and Leif returns with Lord Segrande, I scan the letters I received over the last few months and compare
“Anything promising, Your Highness?” Segrande surveys the letters. His salt-and-sandy hair has taken a severe combing, unlike his untamed beard that twists and curls over the starched collar of his dinner coat. The mismatch suits Seg- rande, who is known for earning as many calluses as the people working the fields of his fief.
“More reports of division and opposition. Poverty in the
ore fiefs. Destroyed property, disturbances in the market. More rumors that feed wariness of Channelers.” The chair
scrapes the floor as
I push back from the desk and pace away.
Our retinue spent two weeks traveling through Malam. Two weeks of passing through towns and farmlands and seeing firsthand the chasm between countrymen that should’ve been
Those two weeks confirmed that decrees don’t assuage distrust.
We are a gray, threadbare tapestry in desperate need of new threads to strengthen us. But my people have spent two decades fearing the very color we need now. Regardless of the abolished
factionalism leaves us
Ignoring the powerlessness dragging through my veins, I stalk across the room, drop down on a bench, and fasten the
my boots tighter.
I remind myself that this is why I’m here. The summit, the tournament, the jubilee — they will be the start of change for
“What of this one? Sir Casper mentioned Sanguine, the
Channeler oil. That’s a pebble of good news.” Segrande leans over the desk. His dinner coat bulges around his buttons.
“More people buying the oil means more people are trusting
“Look at Jonespur’s letter. Or Variant’s.” I stand and scrutinize my shirt for lint, finding none. “Two men have died, and
rumors link them to Channelers and the oil. People believe
“Fools,” Leif grouses from where he sits on the hearth’s
edge. “If they knew anything about Channelers, they’d know
Segrande abandons the desk to wait at the door. “Some ideas are hard to bury. Those people have feared Channelers
be turned over easily.”
It’s always rocks with Segrande. In this case, he’s greatly
underestimated the size of the problem. The prejudices dividing Malam are mountains. I look out the window at the city of tents stretching across the land to the southeast where thou- sands of foreigners have come for the Tournament of Champi- ons and the jubilee.
Archtraitor reported anything?”
Segrande asks. “Millner.” Leif mutters something more about unturned rocks.
“Slip of the tongue.” Segrande chuckles. “We’re the only
three Malamians who refer to Millner by his given name.
still consider him an
Irritation hardens Leif’s face. I
hadn’t realized he
opinion about Millner. He said nothing weeks ago when I mentioned my choice to hire the man. But perhaps Leif’s insistence on respect is because he and Millner share a com-
monality. Millner was once captain of the royal guard. Years
ago, he protested the Purge. Because he was nobility, his defiance was considered traitorous. Guards burned his home, killing his wife. In retaliation, Millner ended those men’s lives
and became a fugitive in Shaerdan. Over the years, rumors have twisted the story, marking him as Malam’s enemy — the Archtraitor.
But I know better than to put much weight in rumors.
I’ve always admired Millner for standing up for what was
“He’s sent no word yet,” I admit, albeit reluctantly. I hoped
his information would shed light on Sanguine and give me something positive to report to the Channelers Guild. It
would be remiss of me to put off informing them. I tug on
A cough sputters out of him. “The entire situation? The men
who died? The rumors?”
I understand his apprehension. As a member of both the
Channelers Guild and my advisory circle, Seeva Soliel won’t be
pleased to hear the rumors. And even less pleased to discover I
waited to tell her. The Guild was reluctant to pledge their support to Malam, and though Seeva serves me, her loyalties still
lie with Channelers first.
“Tell her everything,” I command as we exit the chambers.
The guards escort us through the winding halls of the castle to the dining hall, where the other delegations are al- ready seated around a mammoth oval table. The chief judge of Shaerdan, the queen of the Plovian Isles, the king of Kolontia,
and their dignitaries sit on the far side, while I take a place
beside Ku Toa of Akaria and her dignitaries, with Leif and Segrande at my right. Our guards remain in the room, their five different types of armor matching the flags hanging behind
them. The mesh of kingdom colors serves as a reminder that not
so long ago,
to war with
And now Shaerdan is the hosting kingdom and Chief Judge Auberdeen is the summit officiant. He makes formal introductions and then speaks about the upcoming summit
meeting schedule, the Kingdoms’ Market, the jubilee, and the tournament.
When the latter is mentioned, Leif shifts forward, eager
and ready. The motion doesn’t escape notice. King Gorenza
scowls at my captain, likely because Leif will be competing
“All competitors fighting in your name must be declared at the March of Champions tomorrow.” Auberdeen sets down a leather
with a hundred years of
A murmured agreement rolls through the room, and then the meal
leaders launch into
showing their familiarity with one another. Auberdeen boasts about a
new ship design that will make it possible to double the size of
a trade shipment.
“A ship that large will give you freedom to introduce new
“True.” Auberdeen nods to the Plovian queen. “Like silks from
“How fortunate for Malam that we’ve reestablished trade
with Shaerdan.” Segrande thumps the table, drawing light laughter. “In fact, we’re already seeing the benefits.” He turns to
“Yes.” I lower my fork and seize the transition to discuss
“I’ve heard word of
in our markets.”
“You’ve snared our attention, Young King Aodren. Tell us more.”
Young king? King Gorenza’s booming delivery in a brisk
Kolontian accent doesn’t lighten the dig at my age. He sits languidly on the other side of the table, a head shorter than me,
shoulders twice my width, nose like a hawk’s. He has one arm
draped on the chair’s back and the other resting on the table. A casual
“What item of trade, specifically, are you talking about?” he
“Channeler oil,” Leif answers.
“Oil for Channelers?” Auberdeen’s confusion is mirrored by
his pocket and holds them beneath his unkempt eyebrow hedges.
“Is that the new import?”
“Yes. No .
. . I mean, no.” Leif’s face is the same color as the
“Captain O’Floinn is referring to Sanguine,” I explain. “It’s said to be a Channeler-made healing remedy. Have you
with the oil?”
“Sounds familiar,” murmurs a Plovian dignitary.
“The oil comes from Akaria, no?” King Gorenza focuses
the Ku, who is sitting to my left. “What do you know of it?’ Ku Toa is older than me by four or five decades, small in stature, and has a shorn head — as is the custom for the southern kingdoms’ leaders. I turn to her, curious about her answer.
her dignitary, Olema, answers. “We have an oil in our land
“Are they not the same, Fa Olema?” Gorenza props both arms on
Olema is an ancient man, older than the Ku, with a face mapped in wrinkles. He exchanges a look with the Ku. “I cannot
“It’s the most potent of all Channeler healing aids. Is it
to the thin, lanky
“That so?” Gorenza
stabs a roll
with his knife.
Soma nods. “It’s similar to Beannach water, but more po- tent. Are you
Earlier this year, Judge Auberdeen sent Soma to Malam to draft a treaty between our kingdoms. Soma was earnest and well informed. His contradicting opinion on Sanguine
confirms that the rumors were fueled by prejudices. I know I
should be pleased that Sanguine isn’t hurting my people, but the hatred that must exist in my kingdom to start such a vicious rumor
“Beannach means ‘blessed,’”
says Leif, jumping in
when he can. “It
A flicker of a smile twitches on the Ku’s face.
“I know what it does.” Gorenza shoves pieces of the im- paled roll into his mouth, chewing viciously before adding,
Channeler magic up
“And yet,” says Soma, “at every summit, a Channeler from
“We don’t use their magic, but they live among us.” Gorenza
yanks his knife free. He swings the point to face me. “Kolontia hasn’t
outlawed and hunted Channelers as
Lord Segrande develops
on the table.
“Now that the stone’s been thrown, we can move on,” I say, having anticipated this reaction from the other leaders. “After all, Malam has. There isn’t one of us whose kingdom has a spotless history. My people’s shame is merely more recent.”
Auberdeen and Ku
Gorenza scoffs. “Will we actually see Channelers repre-
at the jubilee
“Of course,” I say. They think Malam will have no repre- sentative in the Channeler show, like the last four summits.
They’re wrong. The jubilee is one event in which I can rest easy. “Katallia of the Channelers Guild will wear Malam’s colors. I’m honored
Katallia became an ally when she fought alongside me to
defeat Lord Jamis. When she performs in the name of Malam,
in all Malamians.
“I’m sure it would’ve been difficult to find another willing Channeler,” Gorenza says, oddly quiet. “How fortunate
you that Katallia’s life was spared during your kingdom’s
extermination, which you did nothing to stop when you first came
If a rat scuttled across the floor, its steps would register louder than
The pommel of my sword digs into my hip. A call to arms against such an appalling insult to my honor. I drag a breath
through my teeth, tempering the wave of intense loathing,
bridling the urge
to cut Gorenza
The smallest movement catches in my periphery. A Malamian guard has edged forward. Gorenza stares at him, nostrils flared in a look of daring that says he’s primed to shed
blood. Any guard in this room wouldn’t hesitate to kill a person for caustic remarks made against their leader, but because Gorenza is the king, my guard waits. As does everyone else,
I’m not here to start a war. I’m here for Malam, I remind myself.
I flick out my hand, low
the side in a
Auberdeen bangs the table with his fist, though he keeps
an eye on me. “Enough talk of trade. King Gorenza, you have a grandchild on the way, do you not? Let me tell you about what
my granddaughter said
The single lamp illuminating my chambers is not enough to
give shape to the clothing chest or prevent me from slamming
shin into the corner. I hop back, cursing, and yank off my
coat. My boots come off next. One tumbles beneath the desk.
The other hits the curtain. For a half second, I swear it’s followed by an oomph. I pull the tunic over my head and let it drop, welcoming
intruder. Pulse ricocheting through my veins, I snatch the sword at
The man grabs for something behind him. I lunge, thrusting the blade’s point at the intruder’s chest. He lets out a squawk. Hands hang
at his sides,
or I’ll kill
A blast of wind slams into me, knocking me to the ground. I manage to keep a hand on my blade. I jump to my feet, but the distraction has given
“I’d apologize for using a wind gust to knock you down,” he — no, she says. A woman? A Channeler. Shock has me frozen
in place. How did she get in here? “But you had a blade digging into
She shakes out her hands and steps into the lamplight.
Blue eyes rimmed with stripes of black lashes stare at me from
under a boy’s cap. She looks like a scrawny stable boy. “You don’t
The scrawny-stable-boy disguise throws me off. But a
memory emerges of her on the same battlefield as me. Last year, she came to Malam seeking her friend, and she ended
fighting beside me to stop the army of traitors from taking Malam.
When I don’t answer immediately, she huffs. “Figures.” And then she tugs off her hat, releasing a coil of raven hair. “It’s
I saved your life
She mutters under her breath about me not remember- ing, and then adds something that sounds like “arrogant
Any shock still chilling my veins quickly heats with anger.
Regardless of our past, how dare she be so brazen as to sneak into my room, use her Channeler magic on me, and then disrespect
“You’ve trespassed in my chamber. State your purpose.” My
is terse and cold.
like she’s tasted
something bitter, and then she withdraws a letter from her pocket.
Uh-oh….when enemies from different kingdoms come together, either peace or war could be on the forefront. Want to find out how Lirra and Aodren will partner together to get to the bottom of what’s happening in Malam? Read ONCE A KING, which you can purchase from any of the links below.
Brown’s graphic novel opens with protests in Syria in March 2011, and the violence that followed. As Syrians flee the country and Assad’s soldiers, others join the fight. Hardships plus the possibility of torture and execution force many to make difficult choices for themselves and their families. Overloaded ships overturn at sea. Profiteers are everywhere. It’s not clear who refugees can trust or where they can go, but leaving seems like a better, safer bet than staying.
The book doesn’t follow a single refugee on her harrowing journey, but instead summarizes the experiences of many based on diverse sources. Individual faces are often drawn somewhat indistinctly, more so in crowd scenes. And despite the despite the extremely difficult circumstances, there are moments of joy and hope. The book made me realize both the scope and scale of what’s happening, and in giving specific examples (with sources cited) and bringing different people into focus (even for just a page or two), it makes it clear that every person in every crowd is dealing with their own particularly difficult experiences.
In Brown’s notes, he says he wanted to focus on the refugee experience, and disregarded everything else to avoid creating “an enormous, sprawling book, one that would not be well served by a graphic novel.” Included in the back are journal summaries from his visits to a refugee camp in Greece in 2017 (along with photos), source notes on particular pages that include the sources of dialogue, and an extensive bibliography. Kudos to him for all of this – it’s not the standard in nonfiction graphic novels, but it should be. While this book may not answer every question about Syrian refugees, it is a great graphic novel.
💬 Do you like retellings? What’s one of your favorites?
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